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Military searches for bodies, brings aid to Samoas

Military vehicles brought food, water and medicine to the tsunami-hit Samoas as victims wandered through what was left of their villages, telling tales of lifting elderly parents above the surging waves and watching young children drown.

world Updated: Oct 02, 2009 13:55 IST

Military vehicles brought food, water and medicine to the tsunami-hit Samoas as victims wandered through what was left of their villages, telling tales of lifting elderly parents above the surging waves and watching young children drown. The death toll rose to 169 on Thursday. Grim-faced islanders gathered at a traditional meeting house as a Samoan government minister proposed a mass funeral and burial next Tuesday. Samoans traditionally bury loved ones near their homes, but many of those homes have been swept away.

The dead from Tuesday's earthquake and tsunami rose to 129 in Samoa, police commissioner Lilo Maiava told The Associated Press. Another 31 were killed in the US territory of American Samoa and nine in Tonga. Maiava said the search for bodies could continue another three weeks.

A refrigerated freight container was used as a temporary morgue for the scores of bodies at a Samoan hospital, and doctors and nurses were sent to devastated villages. About 200 people camped inside the Mormon church in Leone, one of the hardest hit villages in American Samoa.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand sent in supplies and troops, including a US Navy frigate carrying two helicopters for search-and-rescue efforts. The Hawaii Air National Guard and US Air Force flew three cargo planes to American Samoa that carried 100 Navy and Army guard personnel and reservists.

Some frightened residents vowed never to return to the battered coast from the hills, where they ran for safety.

Workers at a makeshift emergency supply base began carting water, food, tarps and clothes to 3,000 people in the hills near the flattened village of Lalomanu on the devastated south coast of the main Samoa island of Upolu.

Red Cross health coordinator Goretti Wulf said the water shortage was the most pressing problem. It is the end of Samoa's dry season, when rain is scarce, and the water lines that supply the villages were destroyed.

Medical teams were giving tetanus shots and antibiotics to survivors with infected wounds.

Aftershocks continued. The US Geological Survey reported that a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck on Friday local time about 151 miles (242 kilometers) north-northeast of Tonga, and 234 miles (377 kilometers) southwest of Pago Pago. No tsunami warning was issued. The mayhem stood in sharp contrast to the islands' breathtaking scenery: Majestic beaches that give way to volcano-carved mountainsides and tropical forests dotted with taro and coconut farms. The Samoas lie about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. New Zealanders Joseph Bursin and Nicky Fryar said they scrambled to reach high ground as the tsunami wave surged toward their beachfront vacation resort in Samoa. Their sandals were slipping off as they sprinted up a rock-covered 45-degree hill and climbed over a lagoon full of mud.

They remember the noise - the roar of the water, the clanging of metal roofing smashing against cars, the sound of buildings collapsing.

"We had about 15 or 20 seconds before the water came in underneath us," Bursin said. "There were people behind us who didn't make it and were taken by the water."

Melissa Coulter said her 73-year-old disabled father survived because her brother managed to lift him up and hold up above the waves. Her mother also struggled to stay afloat.

"She doesn't know what she hit - broken cars, buses, icebox, roofing. She was just swimming for her life," Coulter said. Samoan government minister Fiana Naomi asked around 400 grieving relatives for permission to hold a mass funeral next Tuesday. She said the government would provide free coffins for the 103 bodies in the morgue.

She said other bodies had already been buried due to advanced decomposition.

Some relatives wanted to have their own burials, while others wanted a mass funeral delayed for a week to allow children and grandchildren to return to the islands from overseas. Before the disaster struck, the majority of the population in American Samoa lived below the poverty line, with tuna canneries, coconut plantations and tourism representing the bulk of economic activity.

StarKist and Chicken of the Sea canneries produce the tuna consumed in millions of American households. But the local tuna industry has been in turmoil since the companies were forced to pay workers the US-mandated minimum wage. Long before the tsunami hit, Chicken of the Sea planned to close its packing plant on the island this week and lay off more than 2,100 workers.

In nearby Tonga, National Disaster Management Office deputy director Alfred Soakai said 90 per cent of the buildings on the northern island of Niuas had been washed away, with the local hospital destroyed.

Power in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month.

New Zealand school teacher Charlie Pearse choked back tears as she spoke to New Zealand's TV One News from an Apia hospital bed. She was in the back of a truck trying to outrun the tsunami with about 20 children when a wave tossed the truck on top of them. "We all went under the water and I think a number of the children died instantly," she said.